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BSO Off the Cuff

Lecture-concerts -- with that losing combination of half the music and twice the talk -- are generally not my thing. So the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's decision to double down on its "Off the Cuff" concerts, to which two of its four performances are devoted this week, seemed mysterious to me. Best not to judge such things without experiencing them, however, so Friday evening found me braving the monsoon rains to get to Strathmore for the latest concert in the series. If the chatty format is meant to make newcomers to classical music feel more comfortable, all while charging the same ticket price without having to play the week's entire program, one would hope there are more seats filled at the Music Center in weeks without a hurricane looming off the east coast.

The rest of my weekend review schedule meant that this performance of Markus Stenz's first concert as the BSO's Principal Guest Conductor, focused on excerpts from Mozart's Don Giovanni, was my only option. Stenz was charming and generally informative in the half-hour lecture, an introduction of the opera's music and story with live orchestra examples, complete with Tcherman accent and amusing minor grammatical errors. His ideas about the opera seemed influenced by the René Jacobs recording, with some rather fast tempo choices, strings light on vibrato, crisp articulation over legato phrasing, and timpani and brass allowed to push into the foreground at loud moments.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO offers kinetic Mozart program with Stenz, Meade (Baltimore Sun, October 2)
Another reason to brave the weather was the chance to hear soprano Angela Meade, who made a powerhouse Donna Anna, albeit without the most suave floating tone at the top, so crucial for the musical characterization of Anna's innocence. Likewise, soprano Jennifer Black, who sang Donna Elvira at the Castleton Festival last year, did not really have the vocal force for that character's vengeful harshness. (Not for the first time, I wondered what the opera would sound like if you switched these voice types around in casting.) Pureum Jo made a noteworthy BSO debut as Zerlina, a role that did not come off as mousy at all with her voice, and Thomas Richards was a strong Leporello, outshining the Don Giovanni of Morgan Smith in the Act II finale.

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